March 30, 2005
After half a century of reticence and recrimination, Israel on Wednesday
honored nine Egyptian Jews recruited as agents-provocateur in what became one of
the worst intelligence bungles in the country’s history.
Israel was at war with Egypt when it hatched a plan in 1954 to ruin its
rapprochement with the United States and Britain by firebombing sites frequented by
foreigners in Cairo and Alexandria.
But Israel hoped the attacks, which caused no casualties, would be blamed on
local insurgents collapsed when the young Zionist bombers were caught and
confessed at public trials. Two were hanged. The rest served jail terms and
emigrated to Israel.
Embarrassed before the West, the fledgling Jewish state long denied
involvement. It kept mum even after its 1979 peace deal with Egypt, fearing memories of
the debacle could sour ties.
"Although it is still a sensitive situation, we decided now to express our
respect for these heroes," President Moshe Katzav said after presenting the
three surviving members of the bomber ring with certificates of appreciation at a
What went wrong in the "Lavon Affair" — named after Pinhas Lavon, Israel’s
defense minister when the plot came to light — remains a matter of debate in a
country more used to tales of espionage coups. The Egyptian Jews were
recruited by a fringe unit of Military Intelligence rather than the premier Israeli
spy agency Mossad.
The situation recurred in 1985, when U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was
sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States for passing military
secrets to Israel’s scientific liaison office.
"As with Pollard, this (Lavon Affair) was a rogue operation," said David
Kimche, a former Mossad deputy chief. "We knew never to go down that road again."
There is a twist to the Egyptian case — the now widespread belief that the
bombers were betrayed to the authorities by their Israeli handler, who turned
"The general feeling is that he was the one who caused it all," Kimche said.
Under a veil of secrecy, the handler was tried for contacts with Egyptian
intelligence and jailed for 10 years.
Meanwhile, the agents locked up in Egypt were ignored, excluded from several
prisoner exchanges with Israel after the wars of 1956 and 1967. Now that they
have been officially recognised in Israel, the former agents are campaigning
for a full account of their operation to be included in the high-school
"This is a great day for all of us, those who were hanged and those who
died," said Marcelle Ninio, the only female member of the cell. "We are happy we’ve
got our honour back."
The Story of Yaakov Markus
Quoted from Maxim Ghilan How Israel Lost Its Soul, Penguin Books (1974) p179:
‘Yaakov Markus was born in Berlin on 22 November 1927 to a non-Jewish mother
named Mathilde Markus and to a Jewish father. He came to Israel and in the
fifties was drafted to serve in the 1956 Sinai campaign. He was killed there and
buried provisionally at the Shelah Military Cemetery. Later this cemetery was
abolished and the dead were transferred to other permanent graves. Yaakov
Markus’s bones were to be interred – as Jewish custom stipulates for Gentile dead
– ‘beyond the pale’, that is, behind a small stone fence cordoning off a piece
of the Haifa cemetery.
‘In this plot were buried other non-Jewish fighters, pilots and technicians
who lost their lives helping Israel win her independence in 1948 and preserving
it in the years that followed. Markus’s parents did not accept the
Rabbinate’s ruling. They wanted their son to be granted the same honor as the rest of
his fallen friends – burial in the Military Cemetery. General Goren, the Chief
Rabbi of the Israeli Army – a visionary racist who wanted the conquest of both
banks of the Jordan, advocated a religious state and tried to modernize
religion for that purpose – was not in the country. The bereaved parents appealed
directly to the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who had to make a special
ruling for them. Markus was finally buried in the same row as his fallen friends.
But so that ‘his bones should not be mingled with theirs’, as Meshulam
Schlesinger, Director of the Military Cemetery, put it, his grave was set somewhat
‘Meshulam Schlesinger officially stated that the corpse of Yaakov Markus had
been circumcised after his death, to allow it to lie beside the Jewish
fighters. This was later denied no less officially by the Ministry of Defense. But
the grisly and macabre atmosphere surrounding the case has done much to deepen